Project Canterbury

The Life of Father Dolling

By Charles E. Osborne

London: Edward Arnold, 1903.

Chapter II.

Life in London--S. Alban's, Holborn--S. Martin's League--The Borough Road House--Work among the postmen--The Rev. George Tyrrell's recollections of this period.

'"Society," saith the test, "is the happiness of life."'--SHAKESPEARE: Love's Labour's Lost.

MR. DOLLING SENIOR died September 28, 1878. Some little time before this the family had removed to Dublin from the North. At this time Dolling was constantly to and fro between England and Ireland. His plans were somewhat unsettled. He had often thought of taking Holy Orders, but two considerations had seemed to oppose such a step--one that he thought he could do more good as a layman, especially with young men, as so many of the latter are 'shy' of the clergy; and the other, that for some time his father strongly opposed the idea. He knew that his son had great sympathy with Ritualism, which to Irish Churchmen of the elder Mr. Dolling's school of thought seemed to be assuming most dangerous proportions in the Church across the channel, and he said he 'could not bear to see Bobby a Ritualistic priest,' and perhaps eventually a Roman Catholic one. Shortly, however, before his death he became quite in sympathy with the idea of his son's being ordained, and also became much more tolerant towards the latter's religious position, saying on one occasion to his eldest daughter, 'I am sure dear Bob is all right. He has such firm faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.'

'This intense faith,' adds the same daughter, 'was the keynote of the religious life of both of them.'

Meanwhile the land troubles in Ireland got more and more acute. Dolling had some difficult experiences in Westmeath in 1877 collecting rents. But his immense popularity and his sang froid carried him through successfully. At a time when the life of almost every land agent in that part of Ireland was in the greatest peril, he would never carry a revolver, preferring to trust the people, and so much was he adored by them, notwithstanding his position and occupation as landlord and land agent, that any such precaution on his part would have been unnecessary, and, in his case, even ridiculous.

Apart, however, from the disturbed state of the country, and the uncertainty of everything connected with Irish land, he seems to have felt that he had a call to distinctly religious work, and the thought of the priesthood seems to have haunted him. No intellectual difficulties kept him back. His cousin, Mr. Staples, says with truth:

'Dolling never showed critical or speculative ideas as to theological dogmas. His mind (and he had a very interesting one to me when he would allow himself to talk on such matters) seemed most uncritical, most unspeculative, and completely devoid of any desire to try and form for one's self a private judgment as to the truth or otherwise of any doctrinal formula or theory.'

It is almost certain, from what he himself has said, that Robert Dolling never passed through any period of anxious speculative trial as to the fundamental matters of the Christian faith. His difficulties and discipline were to be of a different nature. Yet he had no impatience with honest doubt, but intense sympathy with those passing through it, though never professing to be able to help them by intellectual means. 'Faith,' he would say, 'is the gift of God.' An expert in the world of practical moral action, he was not at home in that of speculation, and moved somewhat with difficulty in it. He disliked the needless raising of theological and philosophical questions which seemed to have no bearing on life. He was, on the one hand, as completely untouched by the analytic, disintegrating, and sceptical side of the thought of the age as he was, on the other, influenced to the depths of his being by the more constructive movements, religious and social, of the present times. He loved Christianity under every form; he accepted the Catholic (but not Ultramontane) form because of its greater depth and richness of devotion, as he believed, and its more assured and historic character. His only difficulty lay in the application of the medicine of Christianity to the moral diseases of mankind. Of the efficacy of the medicine itself he had no more doubt than of his own existence. Hence he was saved from all that paralysing hesitancy which makes some unable to apply the cure effectually, because in their inmost hearts they are not absolutely certain as to the virtue of the ingredients and as to their power to expel the malice of the disease.

Dolling about this time (1879), though still an Irish land agent, lived as much in London as possible, because of a great and new interest which had lately arisen for him there. A work fell into his hands in which he took from the first an absorbing interest--i.e., the wardenship of one of the houses in connection with the S. Martin's Postmen's League or Club, which had been started by Father Stanton of S. Alban's, Holborn, with the Postmaster-General and the Dean of S. Paul's as its official patrons. This first-rate work, carried out on thoroughly social and fraternal lines, had for a time an immense success. The famous or notorious Church of S. Alban the Martyr, High Holborn, was (at the time Dolling became connected with it--1878--through his friend Maxwell, then one of the curates) the centre of a warfare to which the attention of the whole Church of England was directed. The distinctively Protestant and Erastian parties, the Puritans and the ecclesiastical lawyers, felt that this church was by far the most audacious, the strongest, and the best organised of all the Eitualistic churches in the Anglican Communion. Things have never been done in a corner at S. Alban's. The High Celebration of the Holy Eucharist every Sunday, to which the name 'High Mass' was openly given, was performed with a dignity and grandeur of rite and music unrivalled for a church of its size anywhere in Europe; confessions were and are constantly and openly heard in S. Alban's as a matter of course, and this church has always been noted for the large number of men of all classes in life who can be seen making their confessions there, especially before such a time as Easter. The whole system of the belief and practice of Catholicism (in the form in which those who uphold it in the English Church believe the holding of it to be consistent with their position as Anglicans), was, and is, in S. Alban's presented to the people, and that in the very heart of London, in a bold, uncompromising, and attractive way, in a manner at that time hardly to be paralleled elsewhere.

Dolling was irresistibly drawn to S. Alban's. He did not, indeed, learn Catholic principles there for the first time, and before this he had made his first confession to the famous Bishop Forbes of Brechin, the great Anglo-Catholic theologian of the Scottish Episcopal Church. What Dolling found so satisfying to his nature at S. Alban's, Holborn, was the combination of sacramentalism and its ceremonial expression, and the system of Catholic teaching and worship, with strong human sympathies and vigorous social work. Each of the S. Alban's clergy had, and has, his distinctive sphere and activities. Of the assistant clergy (who formed with Father Mackonochie, the then incumbent, a sort of collegiate body of priests under a responsible head), the Revs. A. H. Stanton, E. F. Russell, and Or. K. Hogg have been at their posts for over twenty-five years--Mr. Stanton, indeed, for forty years. The entire congregation and church officials also worked in complete harmony with the clergy, and especially with the Rev. Alexander Heriot Mackonoehie, the unflinching vicar of the church.

Dolling loved and admired Father Mackonoehie, a man who was pre-eminently distinguished by the combination of courage and faith, and who, as was said of another strong character, might be defined as 'if of granite, yet granite on fire.'

But it was the Rev. A. H. Stanton who most attracted Robert Dolling. Mackonoehie, that high, self-denying, self-sacrificing spirit, was at the helm, facing the storms from bishops, law-courts, the Times newspaper, and hosts of minor adversaries--storms which broke upon S. Alban's as 'the head and front of the offending' throughout the whole Church of England. Stanton, at the same time, was drawing to that church a multitude of young men of all classes by his bold, unconventional preaching, and by that peculiar attraction of fraternal sympathy which makes such men so powerful with youthful souls. He had started, among other efforts, the London postmen's club, or federation of clubs or Houses of Best, numbering at this time 600 of the postmen, which has been alluded to above, and which was known as S. Martin's League. In one of his annual letters to the members, Father Stanton thus writes as to the objects of this League:

'When the question is asked "What good has the League done? Have you made the members High Church?" No! Talk as I will, I cannot get incense substituted for tobacco. "Well, but what have you done these three years'?"

'1. We have thrown a bridge of friendship across that gaping chasm that separates the clergy from the working classes, and the interchange is mutually appreciated.

'2. We have proved that such friendliness is not only duty but great enjoyment.

'3. We have shown many that even Ritualistic parsons can care for something else besides candles and "clergymen's clothes."

'4. We have supplied from our own resources wholesome and rational amusements.

'5. We have made many comfortable whose duties involve great discomfort, and have given very many the opportunity of a seaside holiday. Are you content with this? I am; and more than content.'

At a later time Stanton calls the postmen

'My companions of ten years, whom I cherish with the deepest afl'ection; who have kept the life in me when Church dignitaries had all but turned my blood into vinegar and my heart into stone.'

He tells them that

'The experience gained by common fellowship on equal terms is the best education of all in this life that man can have. You have brought me out of that narrowness of ideas to which the social distinctions of English society condemn us all alike. You have done me good body and soul.'

Again he says:

'In the League I find more than in any other society I know the practice of the new commandment of God (John xiii. 34).'

Into this special work Dolling, the young Irish landlord from Orange Ulster, threw himself with keen enthusiasm. He was soon known as 'Brother Bob' to all the postmen of London, so many of whom belonged to the League.

The League houses were not the meeting-places of a guild with rules of Church attendance. They furnished, the men with something of the nature of a social club, but a social club with a deep underlying spirit of religion on the part of its chief promoters. When among the young men who formed so large a part of the congregation of S. Alban's Sunday after Sunday Stanton looked for helpers in this postmen's work, he found none more keen than the young Irishman who, when in London, made S. Alban's his spiritual home. There were altogether four houses, all of them in London, belonging to the League, besides the S. Leonard's holiday house at the seaside, presided over by Mrs. Boberson. When one of these houses, the S.E. House at 95, Borough Road, Southwark, was opened in 1879, Dolling became its Warden. He occupied rooms in that house, and always stayed there when in London at this time, making his home with the postmen.

We are allowed to print the following by a distinguished philosophical thinker of the Jesuit Order, Father George Tyrrell, with whom the present writer has enjoyed the privilege of a personal friendship, uninterrupted by difference of religious Communion, from the time that both were boys together in Ireland.

It consists of some very interesting recollections of Dolling's life in London and Dublin at this time, and of the stay of the writer of the letter with him at the Borough Road house:


'November 7, 1902.


'My recollections of Dolling date from the time when he first came to live in Mountjoy Square, Dublin (1878).

'As I was then living close to him in Eccles Street, our paths to and from Grangegorman Church, which we both attended, practically coincided, and it was in walking back together from the early Celebrations that we first became acquainted.

' I wish I could give my impressions of him without speaking of myself, but I find it is metaphysically impossible. I remember he very soon made himself felt as a personality, and drew round him by the charm of his universal sympathy and human-heartedness a number of boys and young men, of whose interests he made himself the sharer--not distinguishing too nicely, as is the wont of some, between spiritual and temporal, but taking all their cares on his own shoulders. At this time I was about sixteen and he about twenty-six--a difference that counts for much in that stage of existence--and his formative influence over my own mind and character was very considerable, and left many a deep impression that will, I trust, remain with me always. I feel sure he saved me from many a narrowness, and set my feet in the broader ways. In my crude reaction from chaos towards an extreme sort of ecclesiasticism, he taught me that true Catholicism must be before all things evangelical--a religion not merely argued from mere texts of the Gospel, but filled with their anti-legalist democratic spirit. He entrusted me with the arrangement of the library (chiefly theological) which he was then collecting, and with many hours devoted to the task our acquaintance grew into that lasting friendship which I account one of the greatest graces of my life.

'I fancy that even in these earlier days of his philanthropic efforts his methods were not altogether acceptable to the conservative and official mind, which is content with poorer returns on safer investments, and dislikes bold speculation. Dolling was a straight-to-the-point man, whose convictions were of that vivid kind that inspires a courage which seems rashness to those of duller feeling and apprehension. Perhaps he didn't always sufficiently allow for the difference, and may have credited the heart with the faults of the head; but the sacrifice of souls to a reverence for rules and red tape was, at all times, a thing so exasperating to his ardent nature as to make a nice balancing of motives impracticable. More mediocre men may gain in the long-run by a diplomatic prudence in dealing with opposition, but such as he are better advised in following the instinct of their faith, trusting that their victories will outweigh a certain percentage of inevitable blunders. "He stirreth up the people" would, I suspect, be the truest formulation of his ecclesiastical iniquities from first to last; for, indeed, his work lay mostly among people who needed stirring up, and he seemed to succeed where others had failed. But at the time of which I am now speaking he was not yet in Holy Orders, and, moreover, was a young man "not yet fifty years old"--facts that made his relations with the official apostolate somewhat delicate. Himself an apostle born and not made, the governing motive of his life, and therefore of his thought, was a deep, affectionate love of the individual soul--the love of a man for men, not the love of a man for a system or religion for which he wants to secure proselytes or victims. He was not a subtle apologist or theologian, and could have given little account of his deepest convictions; but I think in the last analysis it would have been found that his love for men was at the root of his faith in the Gospel and in the religion of humanity.

'To this great end of his life, he went always by the straightest means, not caring or asking whether his methods were borrowed from Rome, or from the Salvation Army, or even if they were within the respectable limits of the Book of Common Prayer. "A lawless man," said many, who did not see how strictly all these seeming irregularities were governed by one law, and how he brought every such means or method to the test of life and reality. That this test kept him so uniformly on Catholic lines will not surprise those who believe in Catholicism, while it will also explain why he incurred alternate charges of Popery and Protestantism from the indiscriminating adversaries of either cause.

'I fancy, however, that his Dublin environment was, in many ways, singularly uncongenial to the development of his energies, as those who know the spirit of the Irish Disestablishment will well understand. Its parties might then have been described as high-and-dry and low-and-dry, the former a timid minority. No sort of dryness was at all in his line. Hence he was not sorry when it was proposed that he should take up work in London in connection with S, Martin's League for postmen, an excellent, though now defunct, institution, which owed its origin to the ceaseless energy of the clergy of S. Alban's, Holborn. It was a system of free clubs for the use of postmen during the waste intervals between letter deliveries. It provided for their convenience and for their amusement, and while it offered them opportunities of religious help, it was in no sense a clerical trap or bait, as so many institutions of the kind unfortunately are. All denominations were equally welcome, equally unmolested. Why or how so admirable a work came to nought I have never understood.

'In the August of 1878 I left Dublin for Wexford, and during my stay there, in a town, namely, where Catholicism was at its strongest and Protestantism at its weakest, I practically decided to throw in my lot with the former cause. On returning to Dublin at Christmas I told Dolling, who was in no way surprised; I think he so feared my negative sympathies of that time that he almost welcomed my leaning in the opposite direction. He said, however, that I should give Anglo-Catholicism a fairer chance, that I had only seen it at work in straits and difficulties, that I should go and stay with him for a while in London and see it in full swing. Hence in the following April I went over to join him in a branch house of S. Martin's League, Borough Road, S.E., over which he was presiding, and there it was that I saw him in his full glory as a Christian Socialist.

'A fair nucleus of the League members were already connected with S. Alban's, and had imbibed Father Stanton's spirit of liberty, fraternity, and equality. These, with Dolling at their head, leavened the new-comers easily and quickly, so that the family feeling was quite infectious and irresistible. I dare say Dolling never had easier matter to deal with than these postmen, who belong to about the least spoilt and healthiest-minded class of society, and that therefore it may have been one of the happier experiences of his life; but he certainly seemed very happy at this time, and full of hope. Needless to say, we all fed together, and sat together, and smoked together, and sang together, and, from the nature of the case, it was postmen morning, noon, and night, though the evening gatherings were more uproarious and hilarious. Surely to minister to the mere convenience and most innocent pleasure of these hard-worked and little-thanked servants of the public were an end quite worthy the devotion of a Christian priest or layman, quite apart from all prospect of spiritual interference! But without seeking Dolling found an abundance of opportunities of ministering to minds diseased, which more anxious soul-doctors seek in vain. The mere humanity of the man made him the natural recipient of such confidence as few official guides ever receive; it was almost impossible not to tell him everything, for it was impossible to distrust his sympathy, and only some such distrust keeps men apart from one another. In the midst of all this riot and romping, "Brother Bob" (I remember the occasion of his christening) was felt to be a man who cared infinitely about every soul present in an altogether personal and particular way as different as possible from that of the professional soul-hunter.

'I was with him till July, when he returned to Dublin for some months on business. I lingered on alone in London till October, when I left for Cyprus, nor did I see him again till the following September (1880), when on my return from Malta I stayed with him at Borough Koad for three or four days before I went to Manresa. He was the same as ever, nor either then, or at any time was there ever the slightest sense of a "silent subject" on which we had become divided, for there was no feeling on either side that would necessitate such a sensitive reserve. The only regret was that outwardly our lots must be wide apart.

'I spent my vigil of arms on September 1 with Dolling at a sing-song in a public-house on Blackfriars Road, a diversion of which, as frequented by some of his lads, he wished to have more personal knowledge, and the remembered refrains of those elegant ditties mingled curiously with the first exercises and meditations of a Jesuit novitiate. "You will be out in six months" were his last words to me, which proves that being but man he could err. Though we corresponded at intervals, I did not see him again till we were both in London in 1896. The interval was long enough to put most friendships to the test, but I honestly think that life had only deepened in both of us those sentiments and convictions that were the bases of our affection, and that the last state was better than the first. My visits to Poplar were necessarily few and far between, and the last time I ever saw him was, I think, when I found you there. In the last letter I ever had from him (April 2, 1902) he links us together with himself--"you, Osborne, and I"--and so we shall always remain.

'Ever your affectionate friend,


We have received a number of letters from men who used to stay, when they were postmen, at the Borough Road house testifying to their affection for 'Brother Bob.' In fact, so well known was he to the letter-carriers of London that a letter directed 'Brother Bob, London,' was always certain to find him. One of the postmen tells an amusing anecdote:

'"When at Borough Road, frequently on Sundays he had parties of poor boys--street scavengers, shoeblacks, newspaper sellers, and rough boys of that class. His method was generally to have the copper-fire lit, make them strip and have a good bath (he very frequently providing them with new underclothes), give them a good tea, and send them away at least clean and well fed. I remember one Christmas in particular a party he had who ate so heartily of the good dinner that they could find no room, for the Christmas pudding; so presently the unusual spectacle was seen of a stout gentleman, followed by about twenty boys, running about six times round the squares. Then they came back and finished the puddings.'

When the 'angels '(or rough boys, so called because their rags suggested wings) were more than usually dirty, the postmen protested, as the place was in danger of assuming the appearance, as one has said, of 'an entomological museum without the pins.'

The Borough Road house thoroughly suited Dolling's Bohemian nature, and, did space allow, we could relate many true stories of the extraordinary people whom he got hold of at this time, having rescued them from sin or despair, and who are now leading honest and honourable lives, after having been emigrated by him to start better in a new country. Several pickpockets were thoroughly reclaimed by him. One starving lad who tried to steal from Dolling was reformed by him, and afterwards, as a private in one of the Guards regiments, could scarcely be recognised for what he was when Brother Bob caught him in the act of theft.

Dolling used to say of this young soldier that his last words as he died in hospital and as he bent over him were, '1 have kept straight.' Another who tried to steal his watch, and whom he chased and caught, was reformed, and emigrated to one of the colonies by his help, and prospered so well that he sent back money to help the mission work at Maidman Street.

Robert Dolling's work at this time was more directly individual than perhaps at any other. He was not, as afterwards, a clergyman with the care of a parish organisation, and he had an extraordinary capacity for getting hold of cases which a clergyman under ordinary circumstances could hardly ever reach. Out of the moral and physical wreckage of London many a one, once a poor creature broken in soul and body, and fit only for a plunge into the river, blesses God to-day that He led their despairing footsteps across the path of 'Brother Bob.'

There are many other touching and well-verified stories of such cases for which we cannot find space. There is, however, one more which must be recorded. It comes to us from the direct testimony of one of Dolling's sisters, Miss Adelaide Dolling, who was the actual nurse in question.

A poor labourer lay dying in a London hospital. The nurse who attended him having hinted to him that he had but a few hours to live, asked him if there was anyone whom he would specially wish to see. He replied that he had known nothing of any of his relatives for some time past, and that the only friend he had 'was a chap they call "Brother Bob."' He added, 'He was very good to me, and I want so much to see him, but I don't know where he is now.' In an hour or so Dolling was at his side, and shortly after the poor fellow died happily in the arms of his friend.

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